Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Public Men and Women

I talked last of Ed Campbell. One of the few public role models we had as young boys and girls. You might ask who else we saw during the day in Wenonah in 1960. Not a great number of people but several, several. There was George Bowker and his wife Jane who ran the grocery in the middle of town. There was Tony Sacca who ran the butcher shop attached to Bowkers grocery. We had one police officer. His name escapes me but he lived at the end of Jefferson Street by the lake and his primary duty was helping us cross the street by the corner of Mantua and West Street each day coming and going from school. He was a pleasant enough man with little or no crime to combat.
The firemen in our town were volunteers. They were our fathers and neighbors and so, for the most part invisible except when a fire swept through a house or yard or on the 4th of July when they had an open fire house with beer and hot dogs and gave rides on the firetruck for children at the park.
There was G. Wayne Post who ran the men's store in town. He had a small business cleaning men's shirts as well and delivered my father's crisp white shirts each week in a cardboard box. This served two purposes, one my father looked sharp and two I had ample supplies of cardboard for school projects.
There were various men running a Sinclair gas station in the center of town, though Chuck Forsman ran the more popular establishment just across the Wenonah Creek in Mantua. Chuck dressed as a clown each 4th of July and puttered up and down Mantua Avenue on a small motor bike for the amusement of the children and himself.
There was the local librarian, who beginning in 1962 or so was my mother, Louise Wiler. Later Dot Nugent assisted her in her duties. There were, of course, the teachers and administration of the school, the post men and women, and a few other local businessmen. Among them was an insurance man, Don Mawson. Don's shop was on Mantua Avenue just before the gas station in the center of town. Don's best friend was Milton Webb.
Each morning and each afternoon we passed Don on the way to school. He was, how to say it, a fag. At least, that's how we described him. Young boys and girls with no real sense of what we were saying. He was unmarried, dressed well, and lived by himself, though he had one close friend, Milton Webb. Both men seemed vaguely effeminate, though by the standards of later years hardly flaming queens.
I don't know if Don was a vet but Milton was, having served honorably in the Korean War. Milton spent several years as a prisoner of war. Both men were ridiculed by us as figures of public humiliation. Both men lived honorably and bravely in a small town with small minds.
Milton Webb passed away several years ago, shorly before I returned to Wenonah, ill with AIDS. He died of natural causes and had many dear friends in the community. He was in many ways one of the town's historians and worked with a number of people in South Jersey to keep our mostly unremarkable history alive. My landlord in 2001, 2002, and 2003, Rachel Knisell admired him and his work on the town's history. He was active too in keeping the town green, helping to establish, along with Mr. Campbell, Mr. Eggert, the Middleton's, the Lentze's, and others a band of green woods around our town in the early 70's.
I don't know for certain if Milton Webb and Don Mawson were gay or homosexual, though, if Johanna were to have met them, I'm certain she would say yes. I'm sure she would say, "I can smell my people". Certainly, all the small, little bigots of my acquaintance, including myself, thought they were and worked tirelessly to make them feel unwanted and out of place.
When I came back home, sick with a disease that ravaged the gay world, I thought a great deal about Milton and Don and their world. There were a few more gay men and women in Wenonah by then. Some of them worked hard to help the sick and damaged beginning in the eighties. Their legacy was real and brave. But I can't help but think, that like Ed Campbell, Milton and Don were heroes too.
Milton was a war veteran just like Ed Campbell. He served honorably and then faced the Chinese in their camps. He braved far worse than a dozen or so idiot children ridiculing him behind his back. He involved himself in his world though his world often turned its back on him.
Courage is a funny thing. Role models take lots of shapes. There were lots of people in Wenonah when I was growing up but only two men that I could say seemed to be gay. Only one black family. No Jews. Six Catholic families. A town where being different was a curse.
I'm off to Wenonah again this year for the 4th of July. With luck I'll return with many pleasant memories and some pictures. Here are two from my memory. Ed Campbell racing down a soccer field, laughing and screaming at a bunch of ten year olds. Don Mawson on his porch, graciously saying good morning to us as we walked each day to school. Tall, dressed impeccably, enjoying a crisp fall day in a small town in southern New Jersey.

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